A few posts back, Clyde expressed interest in what I think makes the biggest difference in the progress of foreign language students. I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to respond, but it’s taken a bit of thought. I’ve done quite a bit of linguistics study and reading, and have worked hard to improve the curriculum at each school I’ve worked. Most haven’t had much interest in what my opinions are, but my current one has listened and implemented quite a few of my ideas. Still, I’ve been accused by some ESL educators of using methods that “have no theoretical support”.

How can this be? Have I decided that I just don’t really want my kids to make efficient progress? Of course, not. All of my teaching decisions (which I have control of) are based on results. Do I think the linguistics community is wrong? No. I’m firmly convinced that mainstream linguists are right; massive comprehensible input is the most important factor in language learning. I wouldn’t go so far as some and say that it’s the only factor, but I do agree that it’s crucial. Extemporaneous speech and cultural study are also very important.

Why do I go on offering explicit pronunciation and grammar corrections in class and assigning 罰寫, then? Isn’t that kind of ignoring my own beliefs about language learning? Well, this is how I see it: too much of the language learning research out there has been on immigrants and on self-motivated learners. I’ve read some of Mason’s extensive reading studies conducted on English majors at Japanese universities, but I’ve seen nothing on unmotivated grade school children studying in buxibans because their parents force them to. If anybody knows of any L2 acquisition research that does fit my current situation, then please fill me in!

It’s only common sense that no amount of communicative attempts and no volume of input will do much for a student who’s busy drawing pictures of cartoon characters on his desk. Similarly, with no punishments assigned for errors, students don’t really have much motivation to listen to me when I’m telling them how to make “r sounds” vs. “l sounds”. Some innovations in our curriculum are for the purpose of making language input more comprehensible, and others are for motivational purposes.

Here are what I feel are a teacher’s most important priorities:

  1. Classroom discipline- make all kids responsive, make sure that at least 90% of them raise their hands when I ask a question, and make sure they do the homework I tell them to.
  2. Motivation- give them quick 30 second motivational speeches almost every week. Reason with them, convince them, and condition them through sheer advertising repetition that it’s important to work hard.
  3. Input- the more questions, sentences, and classroom commands that they hear and comprehend, the better. Getting students into extensive reading is crucial at the intermediate and higher levels.
  4. Cultural studies- ultimately, this makes a huge difference in their ability to understand new materials.
  5. Clarity- explaining a difficult sentence structure well once each class for the first couple of times they use it works far better than explaining it quickly and sloppily again and again. Obviously, they have to be paying attention, though.
  6. Output- speaking practice and, to a lesser degree, writing practice are important, but I haven’t found students to need it in anywhere near the same quantities as they need listening and reading.